Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume CIX, No. 6June, 2009

Bill Crow

I lost my old friend Carmen Leggio in April. A heart attack took him away just two days after we played our last gig together, with pianist Hiroshi Yamazaki, at the Red Hat on the River, a lovely restaurant up in Irvington, New York, where we had been the Wednesday night jazz trio for the last several years.

Carmen was a great tenor saxophonist, but he had been playing the alto on this job because he felt it fit the mood of the room better. And, ever since a bout he had with pneumonia a year or so ago, he had found his tenor to be a little heavy around his neck. He still played it on other jobs, gloriously. 

Carmen developed his playing among the black musicians in Westchester County, and made his reputation with the bands of Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I got to know him after he came back off the road to play around Westchester and Connecticut. I was always glad when I found myself on the same job with him, and was pleased that he called me for many of his own gigs. 

Carmen had a style all his own, but also a deep emotional attachment to the musicians who had influenced him. If a certain tune reminded him of Ben Webster, you might hear a few of Ben’s phrases in Carmen’s solo. Another tune might remind him of Zoot Sims or Stan Getz, and his tone quality and phrasing would subtly change to acknowledge the connection. 

On one of the first jobs I played with Carmen, I mentioned a tune I had learned from Zoot Sims, and I asked him if he knew it. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “You play the first chorus.” That meant he didn’t know it, but he sure learned it during my chorus. When he came in, he played two choruses that sounded like Zoot, two more that sounded like Al Cohn, and then went on to turn the tune inside out in his own wonderful way. That sort of musical delight was a regular occurrence while playing with Carmen.

He hated to have to change a reed. When one would finally become completely unmanageable after weeks of playing it, he would reluctantly put on a new one. One night, as he tightened the ligature on a brand new reed, he looked at me glumly and said, “This is like going on a blind date!”

Carmen read music well enough, but he didn’t think about chord names or even keys when he improvised. He would say, “Just let me hear my first note,” and then would follow his ear through the most difficult chord changes without any trouble at all. Once Hiroshi and I started a tune in G that he was used to playing in A-flat. I knew something was wrong when Carmen came in. Some of his notes weren’t perfectly centered in the pitch, which was unusual for him. Then I realized what was happening. He was fingering the tune in A-flat, but forcing the notes a half step down with his embouchure in order to get into tune with the piano and bass. Amazingly, he sounded almost as good as if he had been using the proper fingerings!

Carmen had an old SML tenor that he loved. While pulling out of his driveway one day, he felt a bump and discovered that he had left the horn on the ground instead of putting it in the car, and had driven over it. He took it to his repair man, who was able to rescue it pretty well, but after that Carmen always had trouble with it in the upper register. Last year a group of his friends decided to use the Internet to help him out. One of them found an identical SML horn on E-bay, and we all chipped in and bought it for him as an anonymous birthday gift. (He was 81 in September.) Carmen was delighted, and played the new horn with great joy. One day he told me, “I got my detectives out and found out who you guys were. Thanks.” That horn stood beside his coffin at the funeral home in Tarrytown, New York, Carmen’s home town. 

Hiroshi and I are now the Wednesday night duo at the Red Hat on the River, and we miss Carmen very much.

An item in my last column referred to a friend of Barney Bragin’s, but misspelled his name. It was about the late Bill Berner, not Brenner. Bad phone connection, I guess. Bill, who played the trumpet with bands like Jack Bragin’s Bagel Band in Florida into his nineties, told Barney that he once went to hear Sonny Dunham’s band. Sonny played both trumpet and trombone, but after the second band at the event played a set, Bill said that Sonny only played the trombone for the rest of the night. Bill suspected that his choice of instrument had something to do with the spectacular playing of the trumpet player with the second band, Maynard Ferguson.

Dick Meldonian reminded Eddie Bert to tell me this story. At the original Birdland, back in the 1950s, the diminutive master of ceremonies Pee Wee Marquette announced each band as it came on the stand. He named all the musicians and collected gratuities from them for doing so. The gratuities were mandatory, as Clyde Lombardi discovered, when he was playing bass with Eddie’s quartet. Clyde refused to tip Pee Wee, and so, when Eddie’s group took the bandstand, Pee Wee announced, “And now, the Eddie Bert Quintet. On piano, Duke Jordan. On saxophone, Vinnie Dean. On the drums, Eddie Shaughnessy. And on the bass…a bass player!”